Efforts are being made to reach a compromise on changing the wording of the controversial reasonableness standard bill, but even as it stands, the bill will strengthen democracy – and definitely not harm democracy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a prime-time statement on Thursday evening.
"Tonight, I wish to calm all of you: In any case, Israel will continue to be a democratic state, will continue to be a liberal state," the prime minister said.
The prime minister's comments came as the intensity of protests continue to increase ahead of the bill's expected passage on Monday afternoon, and as additional groups of IDF reservists continue to announce that they will no longer volunteer for service if the bill passes into law. It also came after US President Biden said to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman earlier this week that he had requested that Netanyahu refrain from passing any part of the reform without broad consensus.
Netanyahu argues that refusal of service is the 'real threat to democracy'
According to Netanyahu, what constituted a real threat to democracy was refusing to carry out reserve duty – since objections to serve based on political differences means that the political echelon no longer has control over the army.
"In a proper democracy, the hand that decides is not the one that holds the weapon – but the one that puts the ballot into the ballot box," Netanyahu said.
The prime minister quoted opposition leaders MK Yair Lapid and MK Gideon Sa'ar as saying in the past that they, too, opposed the court's use of the reasonableness standard, and also quoted former Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak as saying in 2019 that the standard could be removed.
Efforts to reach agreements will succeed
He also repeated the claim that the coalition had offered numerous offers to the opposition during talks at the President's Residence that lasted from April to mid-June, but that the opposition leaders refused every proposal out of fear of the protest movement, some of which was intent on bringing down the government at all costs, Netanyahu charged.
He added that he hoped that the efforts to reach agreements on the reasonableness standard will succeed. "But even if they don't, the coalition's door will always remain open, to you, citizens of Israel, and also to the opposition," Netanyahu said.
The speech came exactly 24 hours after National Unity chairman MK Benny Gantz called on the prime minister to reenter negotiations with the opposition over the reasonableness standard, on the condition that Netanyahu pledge that no other parts of the reform will pass without broad consensus. Gantz's call marked a retreat of his position since the start of the negotiations, which was that the entire reforms must pass as one agreed-upon package.
The Likud on Wednesday night refused the offer outright, and blamed Gantz in a statement for leaving the talks and for conditioning his willingness to enter talks on concessions from the coalition.
Speech comes after Benny Gantz offers to renter negotiations
The speech leaves the status of the reasonableness standard bill unclear, as it can still undergo changes during the final debate in the Knesset plenum, which is scheduled to begin on Sunday at 10:00 a.m.
Opposition leader MK Yair Lapid released a video statement in response.
"What we saw today is a prime minister who is taking apart the country instead of unifying it. Who lies instead of telling the citizens the truth.
"Completely contrary to the lie you hear tonight, what he put on the table is not a shrinking of the reasonableness standard, but the erasing of one of the pillars of our democratic method and destruction of the court and separation of branches [of government]," Lapid said, adding that the "most extreme government in the state's history" was responsible for the "army collapsing from within" and the "tear in our social fabric."
Lapid said that he was willing to head to the President's Residence to resume talks immediately, and said that the "band of extremists" in the government "do not have a mandate to turn Israel into a messianic and non-democratic state."
National Unity, Kaplan Force respond
National Unity said in response, "In times of enormous security challenges, on the eve of Tisha B'av – Netanyahu talks about the necessity to unify the people, but in actuality drags us to an unprecedented historical schism, on the verge of civil war. We once again call on Netanyahu to accept Gantz's offer to return to an arrangement of broad agreements that will stop the chaos, and bring the state of Israel back on track in order to cope with the enormous challenges it faces."
The Kaplan Force umbrella protest movement responded, "As is his habit, Netanyahu gives a speech full of lies and incitement. He who brings dangerous legislation that puts the entire state of Israel at risk, instead of heeding explicit warnings about the destruction of the army, the economy and a schism amongst the people, instead of the wholeness of the country, Netanyahu prefers to attempt to turn Israel into a dictatorship. This is the time for civilians to go out and protest."
The "reasonableness standard bill" is an amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary, that would block Israel's courts from applying what is known as the "reasonableness standard" to decisions made by elected officials. The standard is a common law doctrine that allows for judicial review against government administrative decisions that are deemed beyond the scope of what a responsible and reasonable authority would undertake.
The softened proposal on the table
The bill's current wording bars use of the standard for decisions made by the prime minister, the cabinet as a whole, or any specific minister. It also bars its use against a minister's decision not to use his or her authority, and on ministers' appointments of government workers.
The softened proposal on the table is that the bill will apply only to decisions made by the cabinet as a whole. This means that appointments or policy decisions made in the cabinet will be immune from application of the reasonableness standard but the standard will still apply regarding decisions made by individual ministers. If the decisions by individual ministers are on policy matters which are then ratified in the cabinet – they, too, will be exempt from the application of the reasonableness standard.
With regard to governmental appointments, the softened proposal is that appointments that require the Knesset's approval, such as appointments of ministers, will also be immune to the reasonableness standard, but appointments that do not require the Knesset's approval, such as director's general of government ministries or senior bureaucratic positions, will be subject to review via the reasonableness standard.